but when held
up to the light
in amber, gold,
in an old
suitcase in the
I am sitting on a dining chair in our through lounge.
Surrounded by 1970s brown and amber wallpaper
in front of a fake stone, copper canopied, fireplace with a little shelf
either side for displaying ceramic dogs. My mum
uses the handle of the metal comb to section my hair.
The point of it scrapes along my scalp like the blade of a plough.
She pops the comb between her lips and uses
two straightened fingers to grab the ridge of hair
pulling it tight, straight and taut, before winding it around
the skinny plastic roller and flipping the white clasp across it.
This process is repeated until my head
looks like the skin of an exotic fruit. The Toni home perm kit
is opened and mum mixes the chemicals that sting our nostrils.
We cry for the death of straight hair whilst listening to rain.
I am going to a Valentine’s Night disco in a couple of weeks
and we have calculated the perfect perming time so that curls
can relax, less frizz, plenty of body. We chat while the lotion
does its magic and then move to the galley kitchen where I bow
over a basin of warm water. Mum anoints my head,
using a red Tupperware beaker, while I hold my breath and try to look
for hair falling into the basin, without getting water in my eyes.
It was her decision to get her waist length wavy hair cut
into a bob once she became sweet sixteen. Perhaps she had seen
a silent picture, with Greta Garbo on the big screen,
at the Regent Cinema on Royal Avenue.
I imagine a special ceremony—her mother boiling
several soup pots of water to fill the tin bath in front of the fire.
Washing and rinsing Winnie’s hair, perhaps even
conditioning it with a homemade potion or eggs from Granny’s farm
while the grandfather clock ticked time in the hallway.
Her hair towel turbaned while putting on a nice dress,
maybe even her Sunday best. Then long locks were brushed
from root to tip one hundred times, parted in the middle,
braided each side. Clean hair squeaking at the sight
of shining blades as it was pulled, sectioned
and three strands were crossed over and over.
Steel shears sharpened on a stone, black painted handles;
perhaps they’d be made in the shipyard
along with the ash-pan and poker.
I wonder if, just before the scissors were lifted from the sideboard
did her mother say Winifred, are you sure?
And did Winnie, longing to be a women,
yearning to be asked out by Joseph,
nod profusely? So, each plait was sheared off
and she shook her head and what remained
was levelled, as it was as ragged as the coastline.
The plaits were folded in half
and placed inside a clear plastic bag,
put into the bottom drawer for safe keeping.
Was it when she married Joseph
and moved to Strandburn that they were put
into the outer brown paper bag?
I don’t know…
But now I am the keeper of my Nanny’s plaits
because what else can I do with them?
Reproduced with kind permission of the author. This poem was composed in Poetry as Commemoration workshops held at The Belfast Linen Hall Library, Belfast, in 2022. The workshops were led by Maria McManus.